Some thought on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life [spolier alerts]


Spoiler alert, yet again

This is my fourth outting. Tree of Life has kinda gotten under my skin. Feel the need to explain why. So here are a few more ideas, some of which I could have mentioned before, but didn’t get around to it, other have only just occurred to me. Dante’s Divine Comedy? ‘Sup with that?

What relationship is there between Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Dante’s Divine Comedy? More than might be apparent to some. It’s only just struck me that there may very well be a conscious attempt to re-imagine Dante’s epic poem for the modern day, with the latest cosmological and evolutionary discoveries. Freud wasn’t around when Dante had a go. You know what? I am pretty convinced we’re not dealing with a set of accidental similarities. Malick knew exactly what he was doing. Anyone else pointed this out before? Divine Comedy covers a week, the time period Dante believed God took to create the universe. The week incorporating Easter at the turn of the century: 1300. Malick’s Tree of Life lasts a single day. Less than that, the anniversary of the death of his brother at the age of 19. What are the similarities?

Divine Comedy sees the author of the epic poem being lead thru the three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Malick’s final chunk takes us to heaven. Yes? What about the other two realms? Does Malick’s avatar, Jack as played by Sean Penn go there? Not explicitly. Can we divide the earlier parts into a hell and purgatory stage? Hmm. Tricky.

Malick can be seen to have created Tree of Life for similar reasons to Dante. Maybe. It strikes me as in significant part autobiographical. Jack is Malick. The film is an homage to his dead brother, the one who may have committed suicide, the one whose life parallels the dead brother in the film, the one who died mysteriously aged 19.

If Malick’s brother did commit suicide then that would explain a lot. If we are to believe that Jack’s brother committed suicide, then that would explain the intensity of the grief of Jack’s mother. Her son would never get into heaven. If this is the case, then the brother would be a good choise for the role of Virgil, who was Dante’s guide thru hell and purgatory. Virgil was deemed the most nobel man who would never make heaven, given his standing outside the Judeo Christian tradition. Jack’s brother tells Jack in a vision while walking down a hall to, “find me.” At the end of Jack’s day in the office, he says to his brother, “keep us, guide us till the end of time.” The end of time is represented by the collapse of the sun down from a red giant which has scorched the earth to a white dwarf, no longer advertising itself as big, bright or hot, just there, quietly exercising a gravitational pull. At that point, Jack as Sean Penn is actually following himself aged 12, the innocent boy he was before he started to lose his way, committing all seven of the deadly sins, and breaking all of the ten commandments.

The transition from purgatory to heaven is pretty clearcut. The same is not true of the other transitions. In Divine Comedy, there is a preamble before Dante descends into the underworld, guided by Virgil, and the same may be true in Tree of Life. What is less problematic is identifying the role of his brother in leading him thru hell and purgatory. Purgatory, in my opinion, can be identifed in Tree of Life as the section of Jack’s life where he commits a series of sins, and purges himself of those, in preparation for his entering heaven, where he meets his eqivilent of Beatrice, the woman he had been in love with from the time he was a small child. In Dante’s case, it was a female of his own age, who had died by the time Dante’s Divine Comedy allegedly took place. In the Tree of Life, the woman who was loved and is now dead is not a romantic love, but his mother, a mother who exercised an unholy Oedipus stranglehold on him when lust joined the queue of all his other crimes against God and humanity.

The last time we see Jack’s mother she is commending to her children yet another list of positive soundbites by which to live their lives. For the most part these are single words. And the last of all is hope. We see her strolling thru the same forest we have seen her and her husband, each as individuals, stroll before. And as the word hope echoes in our ears, we see her sitting down, head bowed, eyes red, not a glimpse of a smile on her face. This is a woman who appears to have lost all hope. Why? I think it might be because she has not simply lost her most beloved son in the flesh, but has to reconcile herself to the reality that she will never meet him again in the afterlife, because his suicide deprives him of the possibility of passing thru the gates of heaven.

If I am right about Jack’s mother being dead on this day of revelation, and his brother having died by his own hand, then I think I can decode a few more things. There are two bodies wrapped up, lying on the ground at one point. They could represent the brother and mother. We see a mask fall down in the sea. Cut. And then we see the same falling down inside the sea. Or is this a different mask? If it is, then they may represent the two dead people, the two who immediately are let out of the home Jack and his brother spent their formative years. The mother leads her dead son to the door and lets him out, to play. Then Jack comforts his mother, caresses her hair before we see she too has left the building, their home, is walking on the flat white landscape towards the sun, arms outstretched, to be greeted by a couple of angels. This could represent the final letting go by the mother of her favorite son who died by suicide. It took Jack’s reuniting the pair of them for her to finally let go her grief, and become fit to enter heaven herself. Then, in heaven, she tells God, “I give him to you. I give you my son.” Just as she was now ready to let her dead son go, knowing that he is happy, Jack is as willing to let his mother go. And it is this act that seals the deal. While it’s his mother who utters the words, “I give him to you. I give you my son,” it is Jack himself who has done this, given himself to God, the God of his mother, his brother, the God Jack abandoned so many years ago with the pointless drowning of a school chum.

If this interpretation of Tree of Life has legs (and much of it is, admittedly, highly speculative), where are the dividing lines between hell and purgatory in this film? Prior to Virgil guiding Dante into the underworld, and then into purgatory, the poet was lost in a wood, searching for the sun, an image we see more than once in Terrence Malick’s film. The preamble to the hell stage could be everything up to Jack’s brother in a vision saying “find me.” Prior to that we have a dream and a series of day dreams, possibly an hallucination or two, or ‘vision’ if you’re so inclined. But the conscious decision to follow the trail of his brother probably marks the point at which Jack enters the underworld, down into the dog-eat-dog, rat race of natural selection, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost. As the asteroid snuffs out the dinosaurs, and most species on earth, Jack asks of God, “when did you first touch my heart?” Then we come in contact with the world of grace, altruism, empathy, specifically the love of two people, his parents, and we are lead thru his years of innocence, with his two younger brothers entering the scene, shifting seemlessly into Jack aged twelve. It is only halfway thru that scene, that we notice darkness has fallen back into the world of grace, with the ominous presence of Jack’s father, no longer the simple loving man we’d just been introduced to. From this point on, we witness Jack moving progressively into a pit of sin, and hating himself for this. We empathise with Jack as he re-experiences his guilt, the pain at how he rants, and rages at the world, at everyone and everything he loves. Only when he asks his brother for forgiveness after shooting him in the hand with an air rifle does Jack commit himself to emulating his brother and mother, at least struggling to be a good person, a struggle that seems to have become difficult if not impossible from the time his brother died.

So the first main division of Tree of Life is the film prior to Jack agreeing to try to find his brother. From there until the destruction of the dinosaurs is Malick’s representation of hell, free from any humanity, empathy, heart and soul, emotion or altruism. Purgatory lasts from then until the collapse of the sun into a white dwarf, which we see form an eclipse with the earth, looking like an eye starting out at us from the screen, as we hear the voice of the 12 year old Jack saying, “follow me.” From that point on, we are moving into the realm of heaven. Jack has managed to bring his brother into heaven to meet his dead mother. Jack has proven that sucide is not the overwhelming obstacle his mother had been lead to believe it to be. When Jack’s father and mother embrace, we see her kiss his hand, and it is the hand of an old man, which is probably what his hand looks like as last seen by Jack in the real world, and as it will appear when next he lays eyes on it. Anyway, unlike Jack, his mother and brother are dead. Jack cannot remain in heaven with his mother or brother. So we find him, and he finds himself, outside his office, his building back in the world of men, traffic, birds and wind blowing his hair and tie all around, he smiles. The suspension bridge symbolises Jack’s no longer needing mother or brother as moral compass or crutch. He has established for himself his own direct link to the source of true wisdom. He has been reborn. One last shot. From blackness emerges the dancing, flickering colored light, the same one that introduced the film. This is the visual representation of God, which we see many times during the film. It also happened to remind me of what might first greet a baby emerging from the womb, it’s brain having gestated for what must have seemed like an eternity, dreaming who knows what. The mother walking towards the bright sun, walking on the ice may well have been walking into an an adventure in heaven as mysterious and glorious as the one every baby embarks upon. Maybe.

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